“Does she mean ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ like the statue must go or is it like a ‘destroy this university’ thing?”
This is what I overheard as the tide of the crowd exited the main theatre of the 1820 Settlers’ National Monument after a 2017 graduation ceremony at the University currently known as Rhodes (UCKAR). This came from what appeared to be an older white South African man – which I infer based on his accent and the demographic of the graduates. Two years after the emergence of student activist movements Rhodes Must Fall at UCT, Black Student Movement at UCKAR and many other movements across South African universities, the historically privileged subject (read: white man) remains more or less unawares and unaffected by the struggle for decolonised, decommodified and quality public education.
I graduated with a Master of Arts degree last Thursday. I have at various stages been actively involved in student activism since early 2015 and have supported those involved in the struggle for radically transformed education. The whole journey being what it is – an almost constant struggle to navigate and challenge the unrelenting colonial, white supremacist, patriarchal and anti-poor characters and systems of the university – I attempted to draw attention to, and politicise the process of, physically acquiring a university degree at the graduation ceremony.
With family on two continents, flying has always been a regular feature of my life. As the plane taxied towards take-off at OR Tambo International Airport, a distinct, sinking feeling set me deeper into the seat. Panicked, sweating and near paralysed, the idea of the aircraft plummeting out the sky suddenly felt like a real possibility. Hours later, on the winding stretch of tarmac that connects Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown, I realised that my newly acquired fear of flying was a silkscreen for my real fear and anxiety: of returning to the landscape that had trauma, conflict and triumph etched into every curb, corner and walkway.
The following morning, armed in a black shirt that read “Decolonised, Decommodified and Quality Public Education”, I set out to conjure a fitting disruption. Paint, white cloth and a brush were found. The initial plan was to not attend the graduation ceremony, so the Sunflower Hospice second-hand shop had to, and did, provide me with the perfect maroon blazer. Second-hand clothes always need to be washed after purchase to remove any energies of previous owners – so as not to be covered in bad mojo – but having no time, I wore it straight. Perhaps that explains why I didn’t wear a shirt underneath. Or perhaps the spirits of previous wearers possessed me to do what I did.
The first thing I had to address was the codes of dress. Something as seemingly banal as the ‘What to Wear’ section of the graduation booklet attempts to restrict participants’ appearances (read: police their ‘blackness’) which is underlined by subtle racisms and the constricting cloak of British colonial civilising practices. “Extravagant or fancy hairstyles for men or women are out of keeping with the dignity [my emphasis] of the Graduation ceremony.” So of course, an Angela Davis afro was combed out to the edges of this universe and a revealing braless-topless blazer was worn.
Whilst the painted words “Rhodes Must Fall” dried on the banner, I hastily dragged out my curls to form an unruly afro. To avoid unwanted attention before the degrees were conferred the banner was carefully pinned across the entire inside back of the graduation gown with the help of some friends. The plan was to reveal the message on the banner by flipping the gown inside out moments before my name would be announced to receive the degree on stage. #DramaticFlair.
A bit clumsily, I took to the stage. My message unveiled. Despite the defiance of an upheld fist and the strongly worded message on my robe, as Chancellor Lex Mpati ‘conferred’ the degree on me, the most pressing concern it seems was to communicate how lovely my hair looked.
Video of the author at graduation:
In the moment, I forgot to hand over my name card to the Dean of Humanities, Professor Tom Martin, for him to accurately relay the details of my degree. Whilst the Dean already knew my name and said my name, the ‘passing with distinction’ part wasn’t mentioned because of my error. Some of the professorate stood up in support, others watched with amusement and I would like to think I detected a note of bewilderment from the Registrar. Deeply appreciated were all the sounds and calls of support from congregation and audience members alongside the murmurs of shock, disapproval and confusion.
Many of us engaged in struggles for decolonisation study, protest and pass. Sometimes simultaneously, at other times in separate bursts of energy. Many of us pass with distinction. A cadre of beautiful, black, fearless, ferocious, genuine women and men continue to disrupt and transcend a static and depoliticising notion of academic excellence. We excel in what you would have us do and dissent and critique, in our attempts to bring new worlds into being.
In English-speaking Black worlds, we have named this Black excellence. This idea and phenomenon is nothing new as our nineteenth and twentieth century black ancestors, like African-American Anna Julie Cooper, South African Charlotte Maxeke, Jamaican Una Marson and many, many others excelled in that which the colonial worlds would deem ‘excellence’ and surpassed it by doing radical political work in the service of the damned of the earth. Some of its theoretical phenomenological origins can be seen in W. E. De Bois’s ‘double consciousness’, which recognises how black folk navigate the invented systems of white supremacy that are superimposed on the worlds and lives of humankind as they actually are.
It becomes important to push back against the ‘business as usual’ model that separates political work from educational work. Politicising the graduation ceremony – the punctuating moment of the long and arduous process of tertiary education – is important in order to both psychologically and intellectually recognise the real experiences of micro- and macro- oppressions that come with studying at historically/contemporarily white colonial universities like UCKAR. Politicising academic excellence becomes necessary in a space like UCKAR where white mediocrity masquerades as academic excellence and piggybacks on black intellectual and physical labour.
A tangential anecdote might illustrate some of the dynamics at play. In response to growing student political activism at UCKAR and an emergency student body meeting held to address the ideas behind an emergent campaign #RhodesSoWhite, a disturbing communiqué was sent to the university’s alumni in March 2015. Disturbing for two reasons. Firstly, because it blatantly exhibited the university’s embedded white supremacy. Secondly, it ironically revealed how (white) academic ‘excellence’, that is supposedly central to the marketing and brand identity of the university, is in fact (white) mediocrity.
The title of the missive was “VC acts swiftly to avoid racist storm at Rhodes”. Inflammatory and completely inaccurate, to say the least. The use of a “racist storm” undermines the very real racism that students were opposing. The use of “storm” to describe a call from concerned students to discuss issues of institutional racism and transformation points to a deeper problematic tendency of white liberal conservative politics: the othering of critical, oppositional political discourse. “Racist storm” depicts the students involved as deviant, anti-intellectual and unorganised. This falls in with the conceptual current that makes monsters of the political opposition, a line of thought that is so central to the global racist Liberal political tradition. As Lewis and Jane Gordon put it in their book Of Divine Warning:
“Modern monsters… are strangely things that are naturally unnatural, such as people or animals or any other sort of creature that is too large or too small, or even too smart… Of particular interest here are those creatures that either combine more than one form of deviation, such as being black and a genius, or attributes that are not supposed to merge, as in the case of a female genius.”
Aside from the blatant racist demonization of dissident student voices, the letter was reductive and seemed to deliberately white-wash the concerns of a large group of students/alumni. It haphazardly mentioned the events without explaining how the processes unfolded and arbitrarily quoted parts of speeches made by Vice Chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela at the event and on other occasions.
The actual emergency student body meeting was a space in which students were invited to address the concerns raised by the #RhodesSoWhite social media campaign, which had pivoted around how UCKAR is fundamentally a racist, white supremacist institution that retains the ideologies and practices of its colonial forbearers.
The meeting was a rare moment where black students courageously shared their traumatic experiences with macro- and micro-scale racisms. As one student, in tears, shared her experiences on stage to the gathering, a white female lecturer in front of me in the crowd expressed her exasperation with the speaker playing up the situation with tears…
Whilst Mabizela relayed a sense of sympathy, he was quick to close the conversation by assuring students (in spite of their anxious pleas) that the university was no longer colonial and racist. He drew on the supposed brand of excellence and waved the rainbow flag in our disillusioned faces.
As such it follows that the missive proceeded to unabashedly quote a Facebook status (!), that declared its democratic liberalism and institutional patriotism, and presented it as a prevailing (and most favourable) viewpoint of the student body. Some slapdash mention was made of the right to protest and freedom of expression. This was accompanied with not-so-subtle, derailing remarks such as “The placards and posters said one thing, some said something else…”
Ultimately, this mediocre summation of events (that a first year journalism student would not have signed their name to because of the poor reporting style and form) was written for an imagined alumni. As such, there was an insistence on inclusive discussion and democratic process during the student body meeting. Ironically, framing the event as congenial discussion and democratic in contrast to the actual atmosphere that was emotionally intense and conceptual conflictual, made two things are clear. That the letter was aimed at assuring alumni that their investments are safe rather than addressing the issues. More insidiously, the flip-flopping between congenial and antagonistic descriptions of student participation reflects the problematic contradiction of historically white colonial institutions’ inability to recognise its inherited racism, capitalism, elitism and patriarchy.
The letter, like the student body meeting, like a countless social and institutionally-backed initiatives at UCKAR, demonstrate how #RhodesSoWhite. They show how very unwilling the university is to recognise the fundamental contradiction of their operations. This is the contradiction of declaring a commitment to democratic process, unity and difference, but practices consistently homogenising the student body (where the student is in actual fact the white male heterosexual student) and muffling dissident identifications with the ‘purple’ unity brand. As then-UCKAR student Ntombizikhona Valela explained, “the university has managed to avoid real transformation by disguising racism behind the veil of bureaucratic rhetoric, liberalism and Purple identity. Through projects like Purple Thursday and this constant mobilising of students under the banner of “Purple blood”, Rhodes has managed to avoid questions around race and class differences.”
This politics is directly proportional to the academic project and the notion of excellence. The lack of recognition of these contradictions is what enables mediocrity to thrive. White mediocrity does not have to account for itself because it names itself as liberal and therefore excellent. In doing so it is saying: “By virtue of naming myself liberal, I am progressive. As such, I am doing the right thing and do not have to change.” In an arrogant move, this type of self-naming mutates into a conservatism by being unwilling to engage in any critical self-reflexion and subsequent progress.
What the then-university administration failed to describe in a three-page document about the ongoing political struggles at UCKAR and what was not clear for the unaffected stranger at graduation, was captured brilliantly by a staff member: “#RhodesMustFall is about reclaiming intellectual culture from the rainbow brigade that serves white mediocrity.”
The pseudo-critical lens in the missive is but one example of the prevalence of white mediocrity that is a direct result of the unrecognised institutional colonial racisms of historically white institutions in South Africa. As writer and economist Trudi Mkhaya put it, the conversation around Rhodes Must Fall should be taken forward as one about “who [has historically been] allowed to accumulate resources in the first place” and what effect that has had on those who bore the cost of centuries of white colonial elite social, political and financial accumulation.
A year ago, I had considered the various politics of space and ceremony of UCKAR graduations. In it, I asked, “If we understand the graduation ceremony to be about recognising and honouring the intellectual, spiritual and (in some cases) physical labour required to become a black degree holder, how do we celebrate this in ways that reflect the spirit of the worlds we inhabit and hope to bring into being?” The abstract answer at the time was to (a) express some fidelity to the events that emerged with the 2015 student movements and (b) recognise the history of white supremacist colonial domination within which normalised spaces and practices (i.e. UCKAR, its education and graduation) emerge.
As such, during my own graduation ceremony, I needed a moment of disruption or, perhaps more accurately, a moment of conscientisation. A moment of fidelity to past events of tectonic plate-shifting significance: the 1976 Soweto student uprisings, the 2015 politicisation of education with the collective recognition of the multiple, layered and persistent legacies of the likes of mega-capitalist, patriarch and racist Cecil John Rhodes, and the various tides of global student movements for decolonised, decommodified and quality public education. This fleeting and inconsequential demonstration was nonetheless a moment of fidelity not only to many past dissensions but an aspiration to a future.
This was also personal and cathartic. It helped me process and punctuate a time and space that was deeply personally and collectively traumatic. It was also collective and political. There are collective minds and spirits that do the unacknowledged work, continue to create critical ideas and fight the intellectual battles behind closed doors in the hopes of acquiring a decolonised, decommodified and quality public education. We must continue to make visible the past, present and future of our political struggles, in whichever ways we can and on whatever platforms we have access to. Academic excellence cannot be separated from the politics and history of how it comes to be.
Main Photograph: Students protest at the University Currently Known as Rhodes during the #Feesmustfall 2015 national shutdown — by Kate Janse Van Rensburg
Graduation image and video: Supplied